The division of Korea originated as a consequence of a territorial partition imposed at the end of World War II (1939- 45). When Japanese forces on the peninsula surrendered, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to divide the landmass into dual occupation zones at the thirty-eighth parallel, the Soviet Union occupying the north and the United States the south. The arrangement was intended to be temporary, and the country was to be unified after free elections. Instead, diametrically different political systems were set up in the two areas, and all ensuing diplomatic efforts to unify the country have failed. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1993 *]

A communist attempt at reunification by military action in 1950 brought on the Korean War (1950-53), known in North Korea as the Fatherland Liberation War. The fighting was stopped with an armistice in July 1953, but the hostile political and military relationship between the two Koreas remained unsolved, and the North-South military confrontation continues. There is no convincing evidence that Pyongyang has ever given up the option of reuniting the peninsula by force of arms. In fact, despite growing economic difficulties, North Korea continues to devote its scarce resources to maintaining a force structure that appears unjustifiable on defensive considerations alone. Some officials in the South Korean government believe that North Korea has designated 1995 as the year for reunification and is accelerating its preparations for war.*

In 1992 some observers regarded the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula as low, a judgment based on the global political changes that have ended the confrontation between East and West. Despite the end in the early 1990s to the Cold War competition that had created South Korea and North Korea, the confrontation on the peninsula has not dissipated. Multiple areas of friction between the two countries, including potential nuclear weapons development by North Korea, continue to suggest the possibility of conflict, either deliberate or as a result of miscalculation.*

The North Korean leadership has created a Stalinist state that perhaps even exceeds the model. Pyongyang subjects its people to rigid controls: Individual rights are subordinate to those of the state and party. The Ministry of Public Security is charged with maintaining law and order and internal security, and has sweeping powers over the lives of citizens.*

Early History of the Korean Military

Force structure and offensive orientation are relatively new phenomena for the Korean Peninsula. Despite frequent external military challenges, the military has never enjoyed high social status in traditional Korea. The traditional value systems of Buddhism and Confucianism hold the military profession in low esteem. The yangban class initially had two official ranks: civil and military officials. The yangban civil official class, which rose to power in the tenth century during the Kory Dynasty (918-1392), feared a powerful military might dominate the government (see The Origins of the Korean Nation; Social Structure and Values). [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Rivalry for power between the two classes resulted in military dominance over civil officials and contributed to some 100 years of political instability during the Kory Dynasty. Yi Sng-gye, a former military general and the founder of the Chosun (Yi) Dynasty (1392-1910), sought to break this cycle. Once the dynasty was firmly in place, military officials gradually lost out in the competition for high government positions and civil officials were preferred even in senior military commands. As a result, even through five centuries of Chosun Dynasty rule, the ruling elite was seldom compelled to strengthen the military enough to defend the nation. The Chosun Dynasty relied upon its tributary status with China for national defense. Despite two major invasions by the Japanese and the Manchus, there is no enduring military tradition in Korea.*

Roots of the North Korean Military in Japanese Occupation and World War II Era

In times of emergency, the general population would form a volunteer army ( ibyng) to oppose invaders. This practice continued during the Japanese colonial period (1910-45). Several anti-Japanese militias, including Kim Il Sung's group of guerrillas (Kim Il Sung was president of the DPRK and general secretary of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) in mid-1993), were organized by Koreans and operated independently or as part of the Chinese or Soviet forces. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The origins of military organizations and police forces in what would become North Korea during the Soviet occupation are difficult to understand because of limited and contradictory information, and the confusion of the times. Kim Il Sung originally operated in northern China in forces associated with the Chinese communists. He fled to the Soviet Union and later appeared in Soviet uniform at Wnsan in 1945. The North Korean military grew out of the eventual merger of the Chinese communist and Soviet forces (see The National Division and the Origins of the DPRK).*

There were factional power struggles among the various Korean troops. The Yan'an faction had its origins in the Korean nationalist movement in China. Mu Chng, a veteran of the Chinese Communist Party's Long March (1934-35), established a Korean military unit (KVA) in Yan'an with Chinese communist backing. Mu was acknowledged by the Chinese communists as the central leader of the Korean independence communist movement. The Korean Yan'an contingent never was massive, but by mid-1941 most of the Korean anti-Japanese activity had shifted to northern China. Under Chinese communist protection, the Yan'an faction trained a substantial number of military and political cadres and was a political and military force to be reckoned with when it tried to return to Korea in 1945. Mu was commander of the Second Corps during the open phase of the Korean War but reportedly escaped and was purged during the December 1950 plenum because the entry of the Chinese People's Volunteers into the war made him too great a threat to Kim Il Sung's faction.*

Kim Il Sung's faction, known as the Kapsan faction, did not operate as an independent anti-Japanese unit in China during World War II. (Kapsan is the name of a place in North Korea near the border with Manchuria — as northeast China was then called — where Kim's forces were headquartered prior to escaping to the Soviet Far Eastern provinces in 1940.) Rather, the faction was part of the Soviet Eighty-Eighth Sniper Brigade — a mixed Chinese, Korean, and Soviet reconnaissance unit stationed in Khabarovsk. Kim Il Sung, commander of one of the battalions, was a captain in the Soviet Army when he reentered Korea in 1945.*

North Korean Military Before the Korean War

Kim Il Sung's Kapsan faction dominated the military leadership even before the Korean War. The role of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in the interfactional struggles of the 1950s, during which Kim Il Sung solidified his control of the KWP and the state, is unclear. With the victory of Kim's faction, all remaining Yan'an (Chinese) faction members were purged. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1993 *]

The first political-military school in North Korea, the Pyongyang Military Academy, headed by Kim Chaek, an ally of Kim Il Sung, was founded in October 1945 under Soviet guidance to train people's guards, or public security units. In 1946 graduates of the school entered regular police and public security/constabulary units. These lightly armed security forces included followers of Kim Il Sung and returned veterans from China. Many veterans from China who had tried to return home immediately after World War II were stopped by Soviet forces at the border. Some were disarmed and allowed to enter North Korea; the rest were returned to Manchuria, where the force was expanded and tempered in the Chinese civil war. While the Chinese- sponsored forces were growing into maturity in Manchuria, Kim Il Sung secured control of the military and security apparatus in North Korea with Soviet sponsorship. His dominant position within the armed forces was crucial to securing control of the state.*

Soviet forces withdrew in 1948, leaving an approximately 60,000-man Korean army and a larger paramilitary force that included people's guards, border guards, and railroad security forces. On February 8, 1948, the North Korean Provisional Committee officially announced the formation of the KPA and the establishment of the Ministry of People's Armed Forces, which controlled a central guard battalion, two divisions, and an independent mixed brigade.*

The Soviet Union fostered the development of the KPA and supplied weapons and equipment, along with temporarily transferred advisers and personnel who helped to draft the operational plans for the southward invasion in 1950. The core combat units of the KPA, however, traced their origins to the small Korean Volunteer Army (KVA), which had fought with the Chinese communist Eighth Route Army. Aided by a massive influx of Soviet matériel, the KPA grew to between 150,000 and 200,000 men by the time it invaded South Korea in June 1950. As many as 10,000 personnel had received training in the Soviet Union, including ethnic Koreans and Soviet citizens and soldiers. An estimated 40,000 men were battle-hardened veterans of the Chinese civil war who had returned to the north in 1949 and formed the main force units of the KPA.*

Information uncovered in 1992 confirmed that both the Soviet Union and China were aware and supportive of North Korea's invasion plans in 1949. Yu Song Cho, deputy chief of staff of the KPA at the time of the invasion, revealed that Soviet military advisers went so far as to rewrite his initial invasion order. Russian statements in 1992 revealed that Soviet air defense and fighter units totalling 26,000 men participated in the Korean War.*

North Korean Military During the Korean War

The initial stages of the Korean War almost brought victory to the KPA, which had excellent capabilities and successfully applied breakthrough and exploitation techniques. However, the intervention of the United States-led United Nations (UN) forces, the UN Command, denied the KPA victory on the battlefield. Fighting on the Pusan defense perimeter began on August 1 and continued through to the Inch'n landing on September 15. These defeats broke the KPA and virtually destroyed it as a cohesive force. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

China, finding the UN Command occupation of North Korea unacceptable and its diplomatic efforts ignored, announced the formation of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army in October 1950. The Chinese People's Liberation Army massed some 850,000 "volunteer troops" north of the Yalu River, launched a major offensive in November 1950, and succeeded in driving the UN Command forces southward. Only the intervention of the Chinese People's Volunteers and the help of massive Soviet material assistance enabled the KPA to reconstitute itself. The front eventually stabilized close to the thirty-eighth parallel.*

Hostilities ended inconclusively with an armistice agreement in July 1953, signed by the commanders of the KPA, the UN Command — which included ROK forces — and the Chinese People's Volunteer Army. Technically, the peninsula remained in a state of war restrained by an armistice. The subject of replacing the armistice with a formal peace agreement was mentioned in the 1991 Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Exchanges, and Cooperation between North Korea and South Korea, but remained unresolved in mid-1993. KPA losses in the Korean War, called the Fatherland Liberation War by North Korea, totaled more than half a million persons, although North Korea has not released figures. The war also resulted in the virtual destruction of North Korea's economy and infrastructure (see Economic Development and Structural Change). Chinese troops remained in North Korea until October 1958.*

North Korean Military After the Korean War

After the Korean War, an emphasis was placed on the military sector and internal economic planning. According to “Government of the World:” Scholars blamed North Korea's excessive military spending and its inefficient and ill-advised economic strategies” on the country’s problems. “Although these criticisms are valid, the South Korean government from the 1960s through the 1980s also had a disproportionately large military budget and engaged in centralized and heavily bureaucratized economic planning but it did not suffer the same setbacks. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities, Thomson Gale, 2006]

After the war, the KPA was reconstituted, but until the early 1960s rebuilding military strength remained less important than economic reconstruction. The signing of treaties of mutual assistance with the Soviet Union and China in 1961 and the promulgation of the Four Military Guidelines in 1962 brought the military back to a position of primacy, which it retained as of mid-1993. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

While millions of dollars was devoted to "military first" or Songun policy, ordinary people lived in feudal conditions and endured power cuts and shortages. Few people owned cars and only the most trusted members of the regime were allowed outside the country. David E. Sanger wrote in the New York Times: The cost of the country's huge army took its toll on the economy. The DMZ, along the 38th parallel, became a eerie landscape of mines, tank traps and heavy artillery, and remains so to this day. Both sides built up enormous forces: Mr. Kim installed artillery that could shell Seoul from the North. But Mr. Kim also worried about his Communist allies. He was eager to maintain his slightly distant relationship with China and the Soviets, juggling them to keep from getting crushed. [Source: David E. Sanger, New York Times, July 10, 1994]

North Korea’s Military Relations with China and the Soviet Union

Pyongyang's relations with Beijing and Moscow have changed significantly over time as the result of the changing domestic environment, emerging disparities in the strategic interests of the three countries, and key events such as the Sino-Soviet split, the collapse of communism, and the replacement of the Soviet Union with Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) (see China and the Soviet Union). Data on Chinese and Soviet arms transfers to North Korea are scarce and unreliable. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

General trends in post-Korean War assistance can be grouped into six phases. During the first period (1953-56), the Soviet Union supplied assistance unilaterally, and China maintained troops in North Korea. In the second period (1957-60), Soviet deStalinization measures led to tension in Soviet-North Korean relations (see Foreign Policy). As China pulled its troops out of Korea, however, it increased military assistance. During the third phase (1961-64, the beginning of the Sino-Soviet split), both China and the Soviet Union gave little assistance. The fourth period (1965-72) was characterized by renewed Soviet assistance and a drop in Chinese assistance. In the fifth period (1973-84), China's support for North Korea increased steadily while the delivery of major equipment from the Soviet Union declined significantly. In the sixth period (1984-89), especially after Kim Il Sung's visit to Moscow in May 1984, Soviet military assistance to North Korea grew dramatically as Chinese military assistance declined. The Soviet Union supplied North Korea with major weapons systems, including late-model jet aircraft, SA-2D, SA-3, and SA-5 SAM systems, and significant support equipment. Cooperation intensified in other military areas. There were yearly joint naval and air force exercises from 1986 to 1990, exchanges of high-ranking military personnel, reciprocal aircraft and warship visits, and exchanges of military intelligence. North Korea permits overflights by Soviet reconnaissance planes and bombers, and grants warships access to ports.*

The economic and political reforms taking place in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989 produced a shift in relations with North Korea. Naval exercises with the Soviet Union were stopped in 1990. As of mid-1993, North Korea's security relations with the CIS and Russia were in flux. North Korea's military relations with Russia have cooled considerably, although there are indications that both countries are attempting to reestablish relations on a pragmatic basis. Press accounts indicate that Russia has assumed its treaty obligations with North Korea. In March 1992, the CIS chief of staff General Viktor Samonov visited North Korea and signed an "annual plan for the exchange of manpower" and an agreement on mutual cooperation. General Samonov indicated that CIS military logistic support is being supplied on a commercial basis and that North Korea is having difficulty meeting the payments.*

Pyongyang supported Beijing's response to the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. By the early 1990s, Chinese-North Korean relations had grown warmer, although cooperation apparently has not involved the transfers of major weapons systems. China's relations with South Korea do not appear to negatively affect its relations with North Korea.*

North Korean Infiltrations Into South Korea

Since the division of the peninsula, North Korea has used subversion and sabotage against South Korea as part of its effort at reunification. Historically, the military part of this effort has centered on military infiltration, border incidents designed to raise tensions, and psychological warfare operations aimed at the South Korean armed forces. Infiltration by North Korean military agents was commonplace in South Korea after the armistice in 1953. Over time, however, there were clear shifts in emphasis, method, and apparent goals. Pyongyang initially sent agents to gather intelligence and to build a revolutionary base in South Korea. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The 1960s saw a dramatic shift to violent attempts to destabilize South Korea, including commando raids and incidents along the DMZ that occasionally escalated into firefights involving artillery. The raids peaked in 1968, when more than 600 infiltrations were reported, including an unsuccessful commando attack on the South Korean presidential mansion by thirty-one members of North Korea's 124th Army Unit. The unit came within 500 meters of the president's residence before being stopped. During this incident, twenty-eight infiltrators and thirty-seven South Koreans were killed. That same year, 120 commandos infiltrated two east coast provinces in an unsuccessful attempt to organize a Vietnamese-type guerrilla war. In 1969 over 150 infiltrations were attempted, involving almost 400 agents. Thereafter, Pyongyang's infiltration efforts abated somewhat, and the emphasis reverted to intelligence gathering, covert networks, and terrorism.*

Subsequent incidents of North Korean terrorism focused on the assassination of the South Korean president or other high officials. In November 1970, an infiltrator was killed while planting a bomb intended to kill South Korean president Park Chung Hee at the Seoul National Cemetery. In 1974 a Korean resident of Japan visiting Seoul killed Park's wife in another unsuccessful presidential assassination attempt.*

From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, most North Korean infiltration was conducted by heavily armed reconnaissance teams. These were increasingly intercepted and neutralized by South Korean security forces.*

After shifting to sea infiltration for a brief period in the 1980s, Pyongyang apparently discarded military reconnaissance in favor of inserting agents into third countries. For example, on October 9, 1983, a three-man team from North Korea's intelligence services attempted to assassinate South Korean president Chun Doo Hwan while he was on a state visit to Rangoon, Burma. The remotecontrolled bomb exploded prematurely. Chun was unharmed, but eighteen South Korean officials, including four cabinet ministers, were killed and fourteen other persons were injured. One of the North Korean agents was killed, two were captured, and one confessed to the incident. On November 29, 1987, a bomb exploded aboard a Korean Air jetliner returning from the Middle East, killing 135 passengers on board. The bomb was placed by two North Korean agents. The male agent committed suicide after being apprehended. The female agent was turned over to South Korean authorities; she confessed to being a North Korean intelligence agent and revealed that the mission was directed by Kim Jong Il as part of a campaign to discredit South Korea before the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In the airliner bombing, North Korea broke from its pattern of chiefly targeting South Korean government officials, particularly the president, and targeted ordinary citizens.*

Evolution of North Korean Military Thought

North Korean military doctrine has evolved through as many as four stages since the founding of the KPA in February 1948. North Korean military writings derive from Marxism-Leninism through the conduit of "Kim Il Sung Thought." Kim Il Sung is credited with virtually everything in North Korean military thought, from Lenin's reformulation of Clausewitz's classic definition of war to basic squad tactics. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

North Korean military thinking began as a mixture of Soviet strategic and Chinese tactical influences. At the Third Plenum of the Second KWP Central Committee in December 1950, Kim Il Sung's report, "The Present Condition and the Confronting Task," for the first time interjected North Korean combat experience into military doctrine and thought. From 1951 to December 1962, North Korean military orthodoxy was a conventional warfare doctrine based on Soviet military doctrine and operational art modified on the basis of the Korean War experience. This duality is readily acknowledged in official publications such as the KWP journal, K lloja (The Worker). Stalin's five "permanently operating factors," factors that determine the course and outcome of war, were directly incorporated into North Korean military doctrine. The factors are the stability of the rear, the morale of the army, the quantity and quality of divisions, the armament of the army, and the organizing ability of the command personnel. The importance of combined arms operations (armor, infantry, and artillery operating in close coordination) also reflects strong Soviet influence.*

North Korean military doctrine shifted dramatically in December 1962 away from the doctrine of regular warfare to a doctrine that embraced people's war. At the Fifth Plenum of the Fourth KWP Central Committee in December 1962, Kim Il Sung espoused the Four Military Guidelines: to arm the entire population; to fortify the entire country; to train the entire army as a "cadre army"; and to modernize weaponry, doctrine, and tactics under the principle of self-reliance in national defense. The adoption of this military line signaled a shift from a Soviet-style strategy to a Maoist protracted war of attrition. Conventional warfare strategy was incorporated into and subordinated to the overall concept of people's war and the mobilization of the entire people through reinforcement of ideological training. These principles are formally adopted in Article 60 of the 1992 constitution.*

The shift supplies the doctrinal basis for North Korea's strategy of covert infiltrations into South Korea, assassinations, and attempts at fostering insurgencies in South Korea during the late 1960s. During this period, doctrine also began to stress the need to adapt these concepts to the North Korean situation. Military thinking emphasized the necessity of light weapons, high angle indirect fire, and night fighting. Renewed emphasis was given to sea denial and coastal defense during this period.*

Emergence of a New Military Doctrine in North Korea

Through the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, Kim Il Sung continued to favor the political-ideological dimension of warfare over technology or military science. A transformation began in the 1970s, when renewed emphasis was placed on conventional warfare and the modernization of the KPA. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

In the August 1976 issue of K lloja, an article by Kim Chol Man entitled "Scientific Features of Modern War and Factors of Victory" reexamines and reinterprets military doctrine. Kim dwells at length on the importance of economic development and the impact of new weapons on military strategy. Victory in war requires economic development and complete mobilization of a nation's economic potential, including a strong self-supporting munitions industry and material reserves. Military factors are considered in absolute terms rather than on the basis of North Korea's stage of development. Kim argues that the quality of arms and the level of military technology define the characteristics of war.*

After some initial debate, Kim Chol Man's argument apparently was accepted and became the new orthodoxy. The primacy of conventional warfare again became doctrine. Kim's article contains several concepts that continue to influence North Korean operational art in the early 1990s; particularly influential are the concepts that emphasize the importance of operational and tactical mobility through the employment of mechanized forces, the importance of firepower throughout the depth of the battlefield, the importance of deep strikes, and the importance of command and control. Kim also stresses that each operational plan and campaign should aim at a lightning war for a quick decision.*

North Korean Military in the 1980s and 1990s

The Korean People's Army (KPA) is structured and deployed on the primacy of the offense. Doctrine stresses that decisive results can be obtained only through offensive operations. The offense has three objectives: the destruction of enemy forces, the seizure and control of territory, and the destruction of the enemy's will to fight. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Strategy and tactics are built on the key concepts of combined-arms offensive operations, battlefield mobility, flexibility, and the integration of conventional and unconventional warfare. Mass, mobility, and firepower are the three reinforcing elements of a strategy that, when combined with speed and security at a critical point, will produce a decisive offensive strike.*

Changes in force development reflect changes in doctrine and strategy. The military problem facing Pyongyang is encountering difficult terrain crossed by the multiple defensive lines, extensive barrier systems, and hardened defensive positions of a determined defender. A heavy emphasis on special forces is the first solution.*

After the mid-1970s, the emphasis shifted to firepower. The artillery force, both active and reserve, grew steadily, and self-propelled artillery was deployed. Most North Korean artillery has a greater standoff range than comparable South Korea-United States systems. Hardened artillery positions and a forward-based logistics system of underground facilities for ammunition stockpiles, petroleum, oil, lubricants, and other war supplies appeared to be designed to sustain an initial offensive despite a lack of air superiority. These initiatives only partially addressed the problem, however, because North Korean artillery cannot fire from its hardened artillery sites.*

In the 1980s, the emphasis shifted to firepower and mobility as a solution. Some experts believe that maneuver received new emphasis when larger-scale mobile units were created beginning in the early 1980s. Force deployment suggests that Pyongyang intends to employ both second-echelon and strategic/exploitation forces.*

North Korean Military After the Collapse of the Soviet Union

The demise of communist systems in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a profound shock to North Korea. Although relations with the Soviet Union had cooled in the late 1980s, North Korea was ill prepared for the dramatic devaluation of its strategic value to Russia and the CIS. The ramifications for North Korea's military were unclear in mid-1993, but some aspects are known. North Korea has lost its military alliance with the former Soviet Union, its access to military hardware and expertise at socialist concessionary rates, and the ability to exploit Soviet-United States competition to its advantage. Despite North Korea's strenuous efforts at military independence, in the long term these events will make it increasingly difficult for North Korea to maintain a large, modernizing military and, as well, leave the country increasingly isolated. [Source: [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993; Based on information from United States, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers, 1990, Washington, 1991, 69. *]

Official North-South dialogue was reestablished in late 1984, twelve years after the first series of talks in 1972 had been suspended. It was not until December 1991, however, that any progress was made on military confidence-building measures or arms control. The North-South Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Exchanges, and Cooperation, signed in December 1991, potentially marks initial progress toward a reduction in military tension on the peninsula. The two sides renounced the use of force against each other and pledged to pursue as yet undetermined military confidence-building measures. Little real progress has been made as of mid-1993, however, other than further institutionalizing the structure of their talks. As a show of good faith, the Republic of Korea announced on January 7, 1992, that it was cancelling the United States-South Korea Team Spirit military exercise for that year.*

The Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula initialed on December 31, 1991, bans the testing, manufacture, production, possession, storage, deployment, receipt, and use of nuclear weapons on the peninsula. It also stipulates that neither Korea will possess nuclear reprocessing or uranium enrichment facilities. It requires that the JNCC be organized within thirty days of the exchange of ratified declarations on February 19, 1992. The JNCC has responsibility for implementing the non-nuclear declaration, including bilateral inspections, but in actuality exists only on paper (see Inter-Korean Affairs).*

Pyongyang is a regime under tremendous pressure, with forces for change in the region threatening its existence. Seoul, which has won the political and economic competition, threatens to absorb North Korea in the same manner as West Germany has absorbed East Germany. Only in military strength, with over 1 million men under arms, does North Korea have an edge over South Korea. Its long-term commitment to a massive force improvement program has crippled economic growth. Barring an unforeseen turn of events during its inevitable political succession, North Korea gives little sign of a willingness to abandon its painfully acquired military capability. In fact, it might view its military force as the only deterrent to absorption by South Korea.*

Nonetheless, Pyongyang's leaders are restrained from war by a complex set of military and political factors: the large, welltrained , and well-equipped South Korean military and the increasing political stability in South Korea; the United States security commitment to South Korea and the forward military presence supporting it; and the uncertainty of China's support for military action. As long as the North Korean leadership remains stable, the likelihood of full-scale attack by North Korea remains low.*

However, if instability becomes a part of the succession process, the outlook is more problematic. North Korea will be under growing pressure, which will increase the possibility of miscalculation. The potential for political instability in the final stages of the leadership succession further reinforces this concern.*

Military-First Policy of North Korea

Despite it scarce resources, North Korea has maintained a “military first” policy since the 1990s in which the power of the North Korean leader has been rooted in his control of the military based in part on the policy that food and other resources have gone first to the military. The main ideologue of the 'military first' policy was Kim Jong Il

Alexander V. Vorontsov of the Brooking Institute wrote: “The “Songun Chongch’i” or military-first politics mantra adopted by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as a guideline for domestic governance and foreign policy has elicited mostly negative responses from Korea-watchers. Many view songun as the final phase in the deterioration of North Korea and a serious threat to neighboring states saying that an impoverished country of 24 million inhabitants supporting a military of more than 1 million soldiers is incapable of modernization and economic reform. They argue that greater military participation in politics creates a dual-pronged threat: the army may appropriate a greater share of already-dwindling state funds to increase its readiness and effectiveness; and the generals, supposedly the most militant sector of the policy-making structure, will have a louder voice in foreign policy formulation, which could lead to hostile rhetoric towards South Korea. [Source: Alexander V. Vorontsov, Brooking Institute, May 26, 2006]

“A less alarmist interpretation of military-first politics is that Kim Jong-il is trying to maintain the existing order, to strengthen his regime based on personal authority, and consolidate control of military forces with the goal of preventing an overthrow of the state. So, is military authority a curse or a blessing? The lessons from history are ambiguous, as states ruled by the military have experienced both prosperity and hardship.

“The implementation of songun in the mid-1990s increased the role of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) in daily life. The army began to participate even more in social and economic decision-making, from large-scale infrastructure development to providing its own food. While military personnel are required to serve for ten years, they spend most of their service participating in different areas of the country’s socio-economic life. Thus, the army is now not as heavy economic burden, and is serves as an important resource and catalyst for developing the national economy. The movement to the military-first policy has accompanied a gradual transformation of North Korea’s planned economy to the direction of a mixed economy.

“With songun also come changes in ideology. This change and its underlying goal of building a powerful and prosperous state – “kangsong taeguk,” are justified by flexible and creative interpretations of the bedrock ideal of self-reliance – “juche,” a nationalist ideology developed by revolutionary leader Kim Il-sung. The songun concept replaces the proletariat and the vanguard Communist Party with the army as the driving force in society. This innovation is significant because the army is typically a less ideological and more pragmatic institution than the Party.

Meaning of the Military First Policy

Robert Marquand wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “ Military First started as a campaign to support juche, and as a slogan designed to remind Koreans that the nation is at war. It came packaged with a rallying cry called "dare to die," say refugees and Kim experts. (There's a dare-to-die pop song, and a dare-to-die movie. Recent internal memos brought by defectors indicate "dare to die" is urged on local officials due to a feeling in Pyongyang that young people aren't showing enough zeal to make such a dare.) [Source: Robert Marquand, Christian Science Monitor, January 3, 2007]

“Yet Military First may now be a tool for evolving a significant structural change — a new ruling elite in day-to-day affairs. For years, the North Korean state was ruled by the workers' party. Under Kim Il Sung, the party was the driving force in Korea — the main route to achievement and pay. Everyone wanted to join. (Party members in China and Vietnam are 5 percent of the population; a 1998 Korean Central report put Korea's membership at 5 million, or 22 percent, though it may be lower.)

“"The outcome of the Military First policy replaces the workers as a main force," says Haiksoon Paik, a North Korean specialist at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul. "North Korea's party has not been functioning as well as it is supposed to ... several positions in the Politburo have not been reappointed. Kim is not depending on the party, but a smaller, more streamlined military apparatus. This is due to his politics as a result of the nuclear crisis brought by the Americans." "Military First is not aimed at building up the military, which is already quite built up and strong," says Lee, whose dissertation is titled, "A Political Economic Analysis of the North Korean Regime." "It is about replacing the old party — First Rice — structure of senior Kim. If the party is unwieldy, the military will control the people on behalf of the leader."

Relations Between the North Korean Military and the Developing World

Since the mid-1960s, North Korea has been an ardent and increasingly resourceful supplier of military equipment and expertise to governments and resistance movements throughout the Third World. Military assistance has been provided in the form of equipment transfers, in-country training, and advisory groups. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Beginning in the early 1970s, Pyongyang decided to use military assistance programs as an instrument of foreign policy. Ideological concerns incline North Korea to extend military and financial aid to national liberation movements, guerrilla forces, and terrorist groups. Although its small economic base limits the scale of its involvement in external military assistance, North Korea is nevertheless relatively active. Foreign military assistance efforts concentrate on comparatively inexpensive training programs. The true extent of North Korea's involvement in providing military assistance may never be known, however, because of its obsessive secrecy and the inherently covert nature of radical and revolutionary groups.*

By 1990 North Korea had provided military training to groups in sixty-two countries — twenty-five in Africa, nineteen in Central and South America, nine in Asia, seven in the Middle East, and two in Europe. A cumulative total of more than 5,000 foreign personnel have been trained in North Korea, and over 7,000 military advisers, primarily from the Reconnaissance Bureau, have been dispatched to some forty-seven countries. As of mid-1993, military advisers from North Korea were in approximately twelve African countries. North Korea is a convenient alternative to the superpowers for military assistance.*

External military assistance also includes weapons agreements. Equipment transfers in the 1980s alone totaled nearly US$4 billion. In Asia economic, technical, and military aid was channeled to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, but the level of aid, and whether it included any manpower support, is open to speculation. North Korea also offered strong verbal support to the "struggle of the Vietnamese people against imperialism." In 1971 the entire North Korean diplomatic mission to Sri Lanka was expelled for giving financial support to the revolutionary People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna). Members of the Thai Communist Party received military training in North Korea in 1976. Pakistan was sold basic ground forces equipment in the late 1970s and early 1980s.*

Training and advisory groups remain an important part of the military assistance policy. In 1988 South Korean sources estimated that North Korea was offering a wide range of military and unconventional warfare training at thirty facilities for anywhere from three to eighteen months. Advisory groups were active in thirty-four countries in 1988, mostly in Asia and Africa. The size of the advisory groups ranges from as few as twenty to over 100 persons.*

In the early 1990s, opportunities for North Korean military assistance programs began declining because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its hardline Marxist-Leninist bloc, and the end of several long-running military disputes such as the Iran-Iraq War and conflicts in Yemen, Ethiopia, and Cambodia. Arms exports remain technologically backward, but by offering systems at comparatively low prices and showing little concern about the buyer, Pyongyang has gained a niche in markets where compatible Soviet equipment dominates. North Korea's motivation has increasingly shifted from a revolutionary ideological underpinning to cooperative activity with other states that are uncomfortable with the emerging constraints on arms transfers and the dominance of the United States in the new world order.*

North Korean Military in Africa and South America

In Africa support was provided to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Polisario) guerrillas operating in the Western Sahara against Morocco and to those in Algeria and Chad. Support came in the form of training and small arms supplied in modest quantities. In the mid-1970s, modest amounts of military equipment were supplied and training was provided to governments or revolutionary groups operating in Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Mozambique, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

In the 1980s, North Korea's highest profile military advisory activity was in Zimbabwe. Beginning in 1981, North Korea equipped and trained the Zimbabwean army's Fifth Brigade for counterinsurgency and internal security duties. Pyongyang provided almost all the equipment and about US$18 million worth of small arms and ammunition. The mission was not successful, however, and by 1986 the Zimbabwean government had the unit retrained by British military instructors.*

In South America and Central America, Pyongyang provided financial aid, military training, and small arms in modest quantities to antigovernment groups operating in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela during the 1970s. Documents seized during the United States 1983 military intervention in Grenada also revealed plans for North Korean military assistance there, to include small arms, two patrol boats, and ammunition. Military relations with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua included the transfer of patrol boats and other unconfirmed aid. In April 1986, North Korea sold rifles to the government of Peru.*

North Korean Military in the Middle East

There are indications that North Korean advisers were involved in actual military operations in the Middle East, including reports that North Korean pilots flew Egyptian aircraft during the October 1973 War. North Koreans also are alleged to have operated Libyan tanks during the 1977 Egyptian-Libyan conflict, although North Korea has never admitted that its advisers participated in combat overseas. Reliable reports suggest that as many as 100 North Korean pilots and air crews were in Libya training pilots on Soviet-supplied aircraft beginning in 1979 and continuing for several years and in some cases were actually involved in operational activities. Support to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) began in the late 1970s and included military training in North Korea and the supply of small amounts of arms. PLO support still may have been continuing in mid-1993. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

By the 1980s, many of North Korea's defense industry limitations had been overcome, and by the early 1990s North Korea was capable of supplying a much wider range of weapons and training. Although ideology remains a significant component of military assistance, economic considerations have become increasingly important in weapons transfers. Arms sales to the Middle East garner North Korea hard currency, alternative oil sources, and access to restricted technology. Military equipment transfers have been expanded to include high value-added military equipment such as Scud missiles, antitank guided missiles, tanks and armored vehicles, self-propelled and towed heavy field artillery, and naval vessels.*

For the decade ending in 1987, the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency estimated that North Korea earned US$3.9 billion from arms transfers to over thirty countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Central America, and spent some US$2.8 billion on arms imports from China and the Soviet Union. Purchases included aircraft, missiles, trucks, radars, and command, control, communications, and intelligence equipment. Exports to Iran of approximately US$2.8 million comprised 71 percent of total weapons exports. Arms sales during the peak year 1982 represented 38 percent of North Korea's total exports. Arms exports between 1981 and 1987 averaged around 27 percent of exports annually, with a 1981 high of 40 percent and a 1986 low of 14 percent.*

The Middle East is the major market for North Korean arms, with most sales going to Iran and Libya. Other Middle East clients include Syria, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), the PLO, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Sales to Iran peaked in the first three years of the Iran-Iraq War when Iran ordered almost US$1 billion worth of arms from North Korea; by the end of the war, some US$2.8 billion worth of arms had been purchased. The first Iranian arms agreement in late 1980 covered light infantry weapons and ammunition. Follow-on orders, however, quickly expanded the scope of purchases. These arms transfers also became the basis for cooperation in military production, particularly in short-range ballistic missiles. North Korea also trained the Iranians on Chinese mobile surface-to-air-missiles and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in unconventional warfare. After the end of the Iran-Iraq war, continuing cooperation indicated that technology transfers were still going on.*

North Korean-Egyptian cooperation continues to grow. The two nations are believed to have cooperated on each other's battlefield ballistic missile programs. Agreements with Egypt involve replacement parts for Soviet equipment and cooperative efforts in missile technology. In 1980 Egypt signed a US$40 million arms agreement for various ground systems. In 1984 the two countries signed a joint agreement for the development of the Egyptian variant of the SA-2b/Guideline missile. The two countries also may have cooperated on the Egyptian Eagle/SAKR-80 and the BADR-2000/Condor II missile programs.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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